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Rivalry intensifies as season begins

TORONTO, Ont. – Some off-season moves have intensified the rivalry between a pair of professional lacrosse franchises in New York.

For starters, there’s been a natural rivalry between the National Lacrosse League’s Rochester Knighthawks and Buffalo Bandits simply because of their proximity.

“It’s always been a game both teams look forward to,” Rochester General Manager Regy Thorpe said of contests between the Knighthawks and the Bandits. “And it’s always been real close in regular season games and in the playoffs.”

Now that rivalry is even greater as the Knighthawks have greatly increased its Native connections. The Bandits, the defending NLL champions, already had a Native coaching staff as well as a squad stacked with Native players.

During the past off-season the Rochester franchise was purchased by Curt Styres, a wealthy First Nations entrepreneur from Six Nations, Ontario.

Styres’ business partner, Lewis Staats, also Native, was then appointed as the Knighthawks’ president.

Then, though he is still playing, Thorpe, one of the Knighthawks’ most popular veterans, was named as the club’s general manager. Thorpe also has Native connections – his grandfather.

Rochester also added Freeman (Boss) Bucktooth to its coaching staff. He’s listed as the head offensive assistant coach.

The Rochester squad, which only had a few Native players before, has since increased its numbers.

And that should enhance the rivalry between the two squads.

Thorpe said it’s no coincidence since Styres took over the Knighthawks’ reins that there’s been an increase in the Native players brought into Rochester.

“We wanted to give some of these Native American guys an opportunity,” he said.

Thorpe simply has to look at his squad’s chief rivals to realize an NLL team stacked with Native players can be rather successful.

“I think he’s obviously set a precedent,” Thorpe said of Bandits’ coach Darris Kilgour. “He’s got a large roster of Native Americans and they won the league last year.”

Kilgour likes that the Knighthawks are trying to bolster their Native roster.

“I look at it as an opportunity for Native kids,” he said.

But Kilgour believes several brought into the Knighthawks’ fold must still prove themselves. But, at least they have a foot in the door.

“It’s just the first step in a long journey,” he said. “I can’t say I’m surprised (they brought in several Native players). But it’s much like in any league anywhere. It’s who you know.”

Kilgour doubts the Knighthawks’ added Native ties will be beneficial to his Bandits in terms of boosting attendance in their home facility.

“In Buffalo, we’ve had a good Native following,” he said. “We’ve drawn for a number of years from (area First Nations). I don’t know if it will help us but I think it will help Rochester.”

Besides Kilgour, the Bandits’ coaching staff includes another Native, assistant coach Ron Henry.

Buffalo’s 23-player active roster at the start of this season featured 11 Native players.

Buffalo (5-1) had a rather large Six Nations connection – half a dozen players. They are Delby Powless, Cory Bomberry, Cody Jacobs, Clay Hill, Tom Montour and Ken Montour. Roger Vyse, is from neighboring Hagersville, Ontario.

The Bandits have three players from Akwesasne – Mike Thompson, Brandon Francis and Andy Lazore and three other Native players who did not start the season on its active roster.

Kilgour’s brother Rich, the Bandits’ captain who lives in Niagara Falls, N.Y., and Brett Bucktooth, from New York’s Onondaga First Nation, were both on the injury list. Findley Wilson, a Buffalo resident, the team’s third-string goaltender, was on the club’s practice roster.

As for the Knighthawks (1-4), its two established Native players have been Thorpe, who has been a member of the squad since its inception in 1995, and Marshall Abrams, who is in his eighth season with the franchise.

Other Native players brought into the Knighthawks’ fold, include Chris Courtney, Jason Henhawk, Logan Kane, Chandon Hill, Mitch Nanticoke, Dan Elliott and Ben Van Every.

The squad also has a Native goalie coach, Ben Miller.

Rochester and Buffalo are part of the 12-team NLL. The league this season includes the Boston Blazers, Calgary Roughnecks, Colorado Mammoth, Edmonton Rush, Minnesota Swarm, New York Titans, Philadelphia Wings, Portland LumberJax, San Jose Stealth and Toronto Rock.

The regular season kicked off in early January. Clubs play a 16-game regular season schedule.

The Bandits defeated the Knighthawks 23-6 Jan. 16 and lost its first match Feb. 6 to the Wings. Rochester defeated Toronto 13-11 Jan. 31 for its lone win.